January 26, 1859
Berlin, Prussia (now Germany)
June 4, 1941
Doorn, The Netherlands
Kaiser (emperor) of Germany
For thirty years, from 1888 to 1918, Wilhelm II led Germany as its kaiser, or emperor, until he was forced to abdicate (resign from the throne) and go into exile after Germany's defeat in World War I. He went to the Netherlands and lived there in virtual isolation for twenty-three years He died in 1941, during World War II (1939–45), when the Netherlands was under German occupation. Wilhelm II was a grandson of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) of Great Britain and of Emperor Wilhelm I (1797–1888) of Prussia (the most powerful of the several German states that unified into the nation of Germany in 1871). Wilhelm II led Germany during its period of rapid modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His ambitions to make Germany a major military and naval power and his sometimes reckless diplomatic maneuvering in Europe were primary factors leading to World War I, and they ultimately spelled disaster for him and his nation. John Van der Kiste's biography of Wilhelm II, published in 2001, suggests that some degree of mental instability, as well as personal animosities, fed Wilhelm's dislike for England and fueled his grand political strategies to dominate Europe.
Wilhelm II was born on January 26, 1859, in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, shortly before it became part of the larger German Empire that dominated much of Europe from 1871 through World War I. Wilhelm, of the Prussian royal house of Hohenzollern, was the eldest child of King Friedrich III and his wife, Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Wilhelm had three brothers and four sisters. His full name was Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert of Hohenzollern. Crown prince Wilhelm was born with a defective right arm that he later blamed on the ineptitude (lack of skill) of British doctors recommended by his royal grandmother. A mischievous and hyperactive child, Wilhelm was privately tutored from the age of seven by Georg Hinzpeter, a strict disciplinarian who subjected the young prince to a demanding regimen of study and physical exercise. Wilhelm studied philosophy and languages; he also played soccer and learned to sail and ride horseback. Hinzpeter encouraged Wilhelm to express himself, and he exposed the young man to a wide variety of common folk to prepare Wilhelm for his imperial duties later in life. Wilhelm spent holidays with his royal cousins at Windsor Castle in England and with his German cousins in Darmstadt.
In 1874, Wilhelm entered Bonn University to study political science and law, as well as literature, philosophy, and chemistry. Six years later, he became a captain and company commander of a military regiment. In 1881, he married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, known familiarly as "Dona." They were married for forty years, until her death in 1921, and had seven children: six sons and one daughter.
Wilhelm's grandfather, the aged Wilhelm I, died in 1888. Wilhelm's father, King Friedrich III, was next in line for the throne, but he died after a reign of only ninety-nine days. Thus Wilhelm II succeeded to the throne within months of both his grandfather's and his father' deaths. Wilhelm II blamed his father's death, from cancer of the larynx, on the incompetence of British physicians, just as he had blamed an earlier generation of British doctors for his own defective arm. A ruler who exhibited anti-Jewish tendencies throughout his reign, Wilhelm also felt that British democracy (a government in which supreme power is held by the people) was too tolerant of liberal Jewish opinion. His personal dislike for the British, and his jealousy of their military and political power, would have an influence on Germany's diplomacy in the years to come.
Wilhelm as Kaiser (1888–1918)
The reign of Wilhelm II coincided with a period of modernization and industrial expansion in Germany. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Germany became the most powerful nation in continental Europe, largely through the influence of its powerful chancellor (head of state; similar to a British prime minister), Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898). The new kaiser and the old chancellor did not see eye to eye, however. One of their first clashes came during a coal miners' strike in the spring of 1889, when Wilhelm urged sympathy for the miners instead of the hardline (a strictly uncompromising course of action) advocated by von Bismarck. The kaiser and the chancellor soon found that they disagreed on many policies. Unwilling to share power with Bismarck, Wilhelm forced the chancellor to resign his post in 1890 and was succeeded by General Leo von Caprivi. In spite of his moderate social policies, Wilhelm believed strongly in the theory of the divine right of kings, which held that monarchs derived their right to rule directly from God, and he often upset his ministers and his grandmother, Queen Victoria, with aggressive statements that needlessly disturbed the balance of power in Europe. He allowed an important German-Russian mutual assistance treaty to lapse in 1890, which forced Russia to make an alliance with France three years later. Wilhelm also made it clear that he was interested in building up the German navy, which he thought essential to counterbalance Britain's domination of the high seas. These impulsive moves eventually forced Britain, France, and Russia into a closer alliance during the early 1900s, setting the stage for World War I.
When a crisis developed in the summer of 1914 after the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Wilhelm failed to take the diplomatic steps that could have prevented the wider conflict. Historians believe that he could have convinced Austria-Hungary not to start the war with Serbia, or that he could have withheld full German
support and avoided drawing all of Europe into the war. But Wilhelm's pride kept him from looking out for the best interests of his country, and he moved toward war in order to save face. To build morale, he visited troops in the field from time to time (all six of his sons saw combat duty; the youngest, Joachim, was wounded in battle in East Prussia). However, Wilhelm disturbed his generals and German diplomats with his erratic moods and unrealistic expectations about how the war should be conducted. The kaiser often changed his mind on tactics and policy, causing his chief naval officer, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930), to resign in frustration in the middle of the war. (Tirpitz was unable to convince the kaiser to allow Germany to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare; when Wilhelm finally agreed to that policy in 1917, it brought the United States into the war on the side of the Allies, effectively losing the war for Germany.) In general, Wilhelm clung to the belief that monarchies were superior to democracies; he thought that he and his royal cousins (King George V in Britain and Czar Nicholas II in Russia) would somehow work out a peaceful settlement, even though their nations were engaged in brutal conflict. When Nicholas was overthrown by the Russian Revolution in March 1917, Wilhelm was deeply distressed at the overthrow of his cousin and feared the effects that left-wing revolutionaries might have on his own empire.
Defeat and Exile
Wilhelm was forced to abdicate in November 1918, when the German chancellor signed an armistice (peace treaty) bringing World War I to an end. Wilhelm was given refuge at Doorn in the Netherlands, where he remained for the rest of his life. His wife, the deposed kaiserin (empress) Augusta Victoria, went into exile with him. She died in 1921, and the following year Wilhelm married his second wife, Princess Hermine of Schönaich Carolath. In 1926, Wilhelm tried to rehabilitate his reputation by publishing a nostalgic memoir titled My Early Life, which described his life from childhood to the death of his father in 1888. The book downplayed strife and controversy, and Wilhelm chose to entirely ignore the period of his reign as kaiser and the events of World War I. Wilhelm wanted to erase his image as a tyrannical militarist, and his opening words in the book's preface show how he was trying to reinvent himself as a kindly old man: "In the loneliness of my exile in Holland [the Netherlands] my thoughts often travel back to the past. And the darker the present appears, the further these thoughts wander and seek the radiant sunshine of the happy years of peace and youth. Before my mind's eye the days return in which my Fatherland grew to unity and strength."
During World War II, as the German Nazi army spread across, Wilhelm remained at his estate in the Netherlands. Although he issued no diplomatic pronouncements, Wilhelm hoped that a new generation of Germans would achieve the victory that had eluded him a quarter-century earlier. Wilhelm died on his estate on June 4, 1941. Nazi Party leader and new German chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) wanted to give him a state funeral in Berlin. However, Wilhelm had requested that he be buried in Doorn if he died while still in exile, and that request was honored.
For More Information
Clark, Christopher M. Kaiser Wilhelm II. New York: Longman, 2000.
Van der Kiste, John. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany's Last Emperor. Stroud, England: Sutton, 1999.
Wilhelm II. My Early Life. New York: George H. Doran, 1926. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971.
"Frederick Wilhelm Viktor Albert of Hohenzollern; Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany." Trenches on the Web. [Online] http://www.worldwar1.com/biokais.htm (accessed March 2001).
"Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Place in the Sun." Modern History Sourcebook. [Online] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1901kaiser.html (accessed March 2001).
Kaiser Wilhelm II: Heir to a Prussian Tradition
Kaiser Wilhelm II's abdication in 1918 marked the end of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which had been a powerful force for some seven hundred years in the area now known as Germany. Always a powerful family, by the early 1400s, the Hohenzollern family took control of the state of Brandenburg, and in 1618 they added Prussia to their holdings. The first Hohenzollern to assume the title of King of Prussia was Friedrich I (1657–1713), who ruled from 1701 to 1713. His grandson, Friedrich II (1712–1786), was known as Frederick the Great; he ruled from 1740 to 1786. Frederick the Great increased the power and prestige of Prussia and added much new territory to his domain, including Silesia and part of Poland. He was considered an enlightened dictator because he read French and discussed some of the new liberal ideas circulating in Europe at the time. He also was a talented musician. At the same time, Frederick the Great helped establish Prussia's reputation for military power and discipline, strengths that were greatly admired by Wilhelm II a century and a half later.
Prussia, with its capital in Berlin, emerged as the most powerful state among a group of Germanic states. Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) became chancellor of Prussia in 1862, and within a decade Prussia had won important victories in three wars, against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1871). Upon the defeat of France in 1871, many of the German states agreed to accept King Wilhelm of Prussia (1797–1888) as the first kaiser, or emperor, of a unified Germany. After his death, Wilhelm I was succeeded by his son, Friedrich III (1831–1888), who died after only ninetynine days in power. Friedrich's son, Wilhelm II, then became Germany's third and last kaiser, from 1888 to 1918.
The militarism (the buildup of military power by governments) and expansionism (policy of enlarging a country by taking over other countries) that accompanied German unification during the last half of the nineteenth century helped set the stage for World War I. Under Wilhelm II, Germany came to see itself as the most important power in continental Europe. As heir to the Hohenzollern tradition, Wilhelm II advocated military discipline and steadfast devotion to duty. During the final months of World War I, when defeat seemed inevitable, he tried to boost morale of the German people by flatly stating that Hohenzollern family had never abdicated and would never abdicate. In 1940, when Wilhelm II was in exile in the Netherlands, he sent a congratulatory message to German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler after Germany occupied France, telling Hitler that this victory could be compared to the achievements of Frederick the Great and Wilhelm I, two of the great Hohenzollern rulers.